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A. J. P. Taylor 

Economic Imperialism 


The Anarchist Library 

Ideas live longer than men, and the writer who can attach his name to an idea 
is safe for immortality. Darwin will live as long as Evolution, Marx be forgotten 
only when there are no class-struggles. In the same way, no survey of the 
international history of the twentieth century can be complete without the name 
of J A Hobson. He it was who found an economic motive for Imperialism. Lenin 
took over Hobson's explanation, which thus became the basis for Communist 
foreign policy to the present day. Non-Marxists were equally convinced, and 
contemporary history has been written largely in the light of Hobson's discovery. 
This discovery was an off-shoot from his general doctrine of under-consumption. 
The capitalists cannot spend their share of the national production. Saving 
makes their predicament worse. They demand openings for investment outside 
their saturated national market, and they find these openings in the undeveloped 
parts of the world. This is Imperialism. In Hobson's words, 'the modern foreign 
policy of Great Britain has been primarily a struggle for profitable markets of 
investment' — and what applied to Great Britain was equally true of France or 
Germany. Brailsford put it a few years later in a sharper way: 

Working men may proceed to slay each other in order to decide 
whether it shall be French or German financiers who shall export 
the surplus capital (saved from their own wages bill) to subdue and 
exploit the peasants of Morocco. 

This idea is now so embedded in our thought that we cannot imagine a 
time when it did not exist. Yet the earlier Radical opponents of Imperialism 
knew nothing of it. They supposed that Imperialism sprang from a primitive 
greed for territory or a lust for conquest. The more sophisticated held that 
it was designed to provide jobs for the younger sons of the governing classes 
(a theory which James Mill invented and himself practised and which Hobson 
did not discard). Marx had no theory of Imperialism. In classical Marxist 
theory, the state exists solely to oppress the working classes — to silence their 
grievances, destroy their trade unions and force them ever nearer to the point 
of absolute starvation. Marx jeered at the 'night-watchman' theory of the state, 
but the only difference in his conception was that it stayed awake in the day- 
time. Hobson added a true Marxist refinement. Marx had demonstrated that 
the capitalist, however benevolent personally, was condemned by economic law 
to rob the worker at the point of production. Similarly Hobson showed that the 
capitalist, however pacific, must seek foreign investment and therefore be driven 
into imperialist rivalry with the capitalists of other states. Previously Marxists 
had condemned capitalism as being pacific and particularly for preventing the 
great war of liberation against Russia. Now all wars became 'capitalistic', and 
war the inevitable outcome of the capitalist system. It is not surprising that, 
when the first world war had broken out, Lenin seized on Hobson's 'bourgeois- 
pacifist' theory and made it the cornerstone of neo-Marxism. Like most prophets 
he boasted of his foresight only when his visions had become facts. 

Hobson wrote his book immediately after the partition of Africa and when 
the experiences of the Boer war were fresh in everyone's mind. For him, Impe- 
rialism was mainly acquisition of tropical lands, and what he foresaw next was 
the partition, or perhaps the joint exploitation, of China. In the spring of 1914 
Brailsford applied similar doctrines to a wider field. The War of Steel and Gold 
(1914) is a more brilliant book than Hobson's, written with a more trenchant pen 


and with a deeper knowledge of international affairs. Though less remembered 
now, it had probably a stronger influence on its own generation, and American 
historians between the wars, in particular, could hardly have got on without it. 
Our own thought is still unconsciously shaped by it. Brailsford speaks more to 
our condition. The aggressive, self-confident Imperialism of the Boer war seems 
remote to us; the competition of great armaments is ever-present in our lives. 

Both writers wrote with Radical passion. The first sensation in re-reading 
them is to cry out: 'Would that we had such writers nowadays!' Take Hobson's 

Imperialism is a depraved choice of national life, imposed by self- 
seeking interests which appeal to the lusts of quantitative acqui- 
sition and of forceful domination surviving in a nation from early 
centuries of animal struggle for existence. . . It is the besetting sin of 
all successful States, and its penalty is unalterable in the order of 

Or Brailsford's 

Let a people once perceive for what purposes its patriotism is pros- 
tituted, and its resources misused, and the end is already in sight. 
When that illumination comes to the masses of the three Western 
Powers, the fears which fill their barracks and stoke their furnaces 
will have lost the power to drive. A clear-sighted generation will 
scan the horizon and find no enemy. It will drop its armour, and 
walk the world's highways safe. 

These are heavyweights of political combat. The intellectual diet of the mid 
twentieth century cannot nourish such stamina. But we must stay the flood 
of our admiration with some doubting questions. Was the Hobsonian-Leninist 
analysis of international capitalism a true picture cither then or now? Has 
the struggle for overseas investments ever been the mainspring of international 

The export of capital was certainly a striking feature of British economic life 
in the fifty years before 1914. But its greatest periods were before and after the 
time of ostensible Imperialism. What is more, there was little correspondence 
between the areas of capitalist investment and political annexation. Hobson 
cheats on this, and Lenin after him. They show, in one table, that there has been 
a great increase in British investments overseas; in another that there has been a 
great increase in the territory of the British Empire. Therefore, they say, the one 
caused the other. But did it? Might not both have been independent products 
of British confidence and strength? If openings for investment were motive of 
British Imperialism, we should surely find evidence for this in the speeches of 
British imperialists, or, if not in their public statements, at any rate in their 
private letters and opinions. We don't. They talked, no doubt quite mistakenly, 
about securing new markets and even more mistakenly, about new openings for 
emigration; they regarded investment as a casual instrument. Their measuring- 
stick was Power, not Profit. When they disputed over tropical African territory 
or scrambled for railway concessions in China, their aim was to strengthen their 
respective empires, not to benefit the financiers of the City. Hobson showed 
that Imperialism did not pay the nation. With longer experience, we can even 


say that it does not pay the investors. But the proof, even if convincing, would 
not have deterred the advocates of Imperialism. They were thinking in different 

The economic analysis breaks down in almost every which has been exam- 
ined in detail. Morocco has often been treated as a classical case of finance 
imperialism, by Brailsford himself and in more detail by E D Morel. In fact, 
the French financiers were forced to invest in Morocco much against their will, 
in order to prepare the way for French political control. They knew they would 
lose their money, and they did. But Morocco became a French protectorate. 
Again, Brailsford made much play with the British investment in Egypt, which 
Cromer had promoted. But Cromer promoted these investments in order to 
strengthen British political control, and not the other way round. The British 
held on to Egypt for the sake of their empire; they did not hold their empire for 
the sake of Egypt. Even the Boer war was not purely a war for financial gain. 
British policy in South Africa would have been exactly the same if there had 
been no gold-mines. The only difference is that, without the profits from the 
dynamite-monopoly, the Boers would have been unable to put up much resis- 
tance. Rhodes was a great scoundrel in Radical eyes, and quite rightly. But not 
for the reasons that they supposed. Rhodes wanted wealth for the power that 
it brought, not for its own sake. Hence he understood the realities of politics 
better than they did. 

Those who explained Imperialism in terms of economics were rationalists 
themselves and therefore sought a rational explanation for the behaviour of 
others. If capitalists and politicians were as rational as Hobson and Brailsford, 
this is how they would behave. And of course a minority did. They took 
their profits, agreed with their enemy in the way and died quietly in their 
beds. But they did not set the pattern of events. It is disturbing that, while 
Hobson and Brailsford were so penetrating about the present, they were wrong 
about the future. Hobson ignored Europe altogether — rightly, since he was 
discussing colonial affairs. He expected the international capitalists to join in 
the exploitation of China and even to recruit Chinese armies with which to 
hold down the workers of Europe. Brailsford looked to Europe only to reject 
it. He wrote — this in March 1914: 'the dangers which forced our ancestors 
into European coalitions and Continental wars have gone never to return'. And 
again, 'it is as certain as anything in politics can be, that the frontiers of our 
modern national states are finally drawn. My own belief is that there will be 
no more wars among the six Great Powers.' Even if there were a war, 'it is 
hard to believe that . . . German Socialists would show any ardour in shooting 
down French workmen. The spirit which marched through Sedan to Paris could 
not be revived in our generation.' It may be unfair to judge any writer in the 
light of what came after. Yet men with far less of Brailsford 's knowledge and 
intellectual equipment foresaw the conflict of 1914, and even the shape that it 
would take. The true vision of the future was with Robert Blatchford, when he 
wrote his pamphlet, Germany and England, for the Daily Mail. 

This is a sad confession. Hobson and Brailsford arc our sort. We think like 
them, judge like them, admire their style and their moral values. We should be 
ashamed to write like Blatchford, though he was in fact the greatest popular 
journalist since Cobbett. Yet he was right, and they were wrong. Their virtues 
were their undoing. They expected reason to triumph. He knew that men love 
Power above all else. This, not Imperialism, is the besetting sin. Lenin knew it 


also. Hence, though a rationalist by origin, he turned himself into a wielder of 
power. Thanks to him, there is nothing to choose between Rhodes and a Soviet 
commissar. Nothing except this: the capitalist may be sometimes corrupted and 
softened by his wealth; the Soviet dictators have nothing to wear them down. 
If the evils which Hobson and Brailsford discovered in capitalism had been in 
fact the greatest of public vices, we should now be living in an easier world. It 
is the high-minded and inspired, the missionaries not the capitalists, who cause 
most of the trouble. Worst of all the men of Power who arc missionaries as well. 


The Anarchist Library 

October 17, 2009 

Anti-Copyright . 
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Author: A. J. P. Taylor 
Title: Economic Imperialism 

Publication date: 1952 

Retreived on April 30th, 2009 from